Santacruzan might be ‘feminism even before feminism was born’

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Can the Santacruzan be read as a feminist event? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — With many colorful fiestas and celebrations across the country throughout the month, May is the closest Filipinos have to spring. Signaling the tail end of summer, it’s a time for growth and blooming all around. More than that, it also marks the month-long celebration of Flores de Mayo, which begins with a nine-day novena and culminates in parades in most towns called the Santacruzan.

The religious custom became a tradition in the Philippines in 1854, following the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which states that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin. Around 1867, Fr. Mariano Sevilla’s Tagalog translation of the devotional “Flores de Maria” was published. The celebration was given the name Flores de Mayo, or Flowers of May, as May is the month devoted to the Blessed Mother.

According to historian Xiao Chua, a professor at the De La Salle University, people would go to church, come up to the statue of the Virgin Mary, and put flowers at her feet every day.

The Santacruzan, meanwhile, takes its name from the Holy Cross, as it’s meant to commemorate Queen Helena’s search for the cross on which Jesus Christ died.

Chua adds that Christians once celebrated the Feast of the Cross in May. While this may no longer be the case in most Christian countries, the parade of the Santacruzan has been and continues to be a staple in Philippine culture. Introduced during the Spanish colonization as a means to further integrate the Catholic religion into the Filipinos’ way of life, the Santacruzan adopted our ancestors’ loud and vibrant way of throwing fiestas as a way to give thanks for a good harvest.

“In the Philippines, people like to tell stories by acting them out,” says Chua. We learn and understand our faith through visuals, so the Church devised a way to relay stories from the Bible in the form of a procession. “But instead of statues,” adds Chua, “you have people walking and [portraying the characters].”

Chua theorizes that somewhere along the way, the traditions of Flores de Mayo and the Santacruzan were fused into what we know and celebrate today, what is also called the Sagalahan or Sagala.

The evolution of the Santacruzan

The stars of the Santacruzan are the women, who each stand for certain Biblical characters or theological virtues. These include: Reyna Banderada, who symbolizes the coming of Christianity; Reyna Fe, who symbolizes the virtue of faith; Reyna Judith, also known as Judith of Bethulia, who beheaded the general Holofernes to save her city; St. Veronica, who reached out to Jesus as he carried his cross and offered her veil, which he pressed to his face and was miraculously imprinted; three Marys, including the Mother of God; and Reyna Elena or Queen Helena herself.

As the times have progressed, however, so has the Santacruzan. From a primarily religious event, it has become a beauty pageant of sorts. The selection of participants, especially the prestige role of the Reyna Elena, no longer relies on just the woman’s ability to embody the virtues, but more on her physical attributes, influence and social status, and even affluence. Chua is particularly critical of how common it has become for the Reyna Elena and her accompanying Constantino to be the same age, when they were mother and son and should therefore look their respective ages.

"What can the Flores de Mayo say to Filipinos of other faiths, not for the purpose of converting them — which the early Christians shed a lot of blood for — but for the sake of harmonious living in this country?" — Faye Cura

These changes, according to Chua, are brought about and driven by commercialism, with the government and local officials going so far as to invite famous actors as guests. As a result, “you [lose] the religious significance of it,” he says. Instead of being reminded of their faith, the spectators are instead paying attention solely to the pageantry and the glamour.

“I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” Chua adds, but one good thing about it, he says, is that “it’s one of the things that make the Santacruzan, Sagalahan, or Flores de Mayo relevant for young people.”

Because it champions the stories of women and their strength, Chua posits that the Santacruzan might be “feminism even before feminism was born.”

Santacruzan as a feminist agenda

Writer Faye Cura, who works as a researcher and curator at the Ayala Museum’s Filipinas Heritage Library and founded Gantala Press, an independent women’s press, offers further insight to this claim. “It is said that [Queen Helena] was a late convert to Christianity, but she carried out the Christian mission with zeal and fervor, giving to the poor, mingling with ordinary people, while founding churches in Jerusalem,” she says. “In a sense,” due to her having found the True Cross in the Holy Land, “she was an early anthropologist.”

“I’m not sure if the church would advance the Santacruzan with a consciously feminist agenda,” Cura adds, “but any opportunity to focus or shed light on Helena’s story as a pilgrim, missionary, and proto-scholar could certainly lead to feminist studies of women’s lives in ancient times.”

Still, like most beauty pageants, the Santacruzan isn’t above reinforcing certain standards of beauty and womanhood. Cura points out that devout Catholics view Mother Mary as an ideal woman for her “self-sacrificing, virginal, [and] not at all palaban” qualities.

“Any young Filipina living in the Christian lowlands would have her own experience of the Santacruzan,” she says. “Either as one of the sagala who can afford to buy an expensive gown and heels — heels! — or as one of the great majority, that is, a spectator who is subconsciously being told that this was how a girl could get value and attention from the whole community.”

If we want to make the Santacruzan a safer, more open-minded space for the modern woman, Cura says, “People will have to rethink why festivals like this need to go on, and why in this way. It all boils down to what we teach our sons and daughters about treating women with respect and as men's equals, not as objects of the male gaze — which is what happens in everyday life, especially in beauty pageants.”

The core message of Flores de Mayo

Chua also stresses the importance of remembering the core message of the event and why we celebrate it even with changing times and changing traditions. “A lot of people [participate in the] Santacruzan without even trying or bothering to look at Google and Wikipedia to know what the meaning of Queen Helena, or Constantine, or the Holy Cross,” he says. He suggests reading the scriptures, and to focus on the stories of the women specifically.

“I think that the church and Catholic schools can be more aggressive in educating their followers more on the value of the Flores de Mayo, or teach them the story of the Santacruzan,” says Cura. “What can they teach us about the burning issues of our time? Likewise, what can the Flores de Mayo say to Filipinos of other faiths, not for the purpose of converting them — which the early Christians shed a lot of blood for — but for the sake of harmonious living in this country?”

The Santacruzan is where people come together, and it is something we do as a community, from putting together the festivities to witnessing the results of our preparations. “It is an expression of the Filipino faith,” Chua says. “The stories might not be Filipino, but the way that we do it, with much fanfare, like a fiesta, is really Filipino.”

As it is celebrated in May, which is the harvest season, he adds that it can also be a form of thanksgiving to God. “Its message is good,” he says, citing the celebration’s ability to bring out the best in people, to have them uphold the virtues, and to build a community. “These are the things that are important [about] the Sagalahan, that's why it should continue.”